October 9: Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, Medical Missionary, 1940

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1941 Newfoundland postage stamp

About this commemoration

Sir Wilfred Thomason Grenfell was born in Cheshire, England in 1865, the second of four sons of the Reverend Algernon Sidney Grenfell, headmaster of Mostyn House School, Parkgate, and his wife Jane Georgina Hutchinson. While studying medicine at the London Hospital Medical School, he came under the influence of American revivalist Dwight L. Moody. An athlete skilled in boxing, cricket, rugby, and rowing, he was an early exponent of the “muscular Christianity” made famous by Charles Kingsley.

In 1887, following his medical qualification, he joined the Royal National Mission to Deep-Sea Fisherman as a medical missionary, serving in Iceland and the Bay of Biscay. During a visit to Labrador in 1892, Grenfell was appalled by the near-starvation, poverty, and ill health of the British workers there. Devoting himself to their nurture and improvement, be built the first hospital of the Labrador Medical Mission in 1893, eventually opening boarding schools, hospital ships, clothing distribution centers, and the Seaman’s Institute at St. John’s, Newfoundland, often with money he raised himself with speaking tours and books. Several of his books about Labrador and his religious books appealed to those with whom he worked due to his modest and simple style.

In 1912, he organized the International Grenfell Association, with branches in Newfoundland, the United States, and Canada, and this organization supported his work and ministry for the remainder of his career.

Grenfell retired from his work in 1935 due to ill health. He died in Vermont in October of 1940.


I  Compassionate God, whose Son Jesus Christ taught that by ministering to the least of our brothers and sisters, we minister to him: Make us ever ready to respond to the needs of others, that, inspired by the ministry of Wilfred Grenfell to the sick and to seafarers in Labrador and northern Newfoundland, our actions may witness to the love of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II  Compassionate God, whose Son Jesus Christ taught that by ministering to the least of our brothers and sisters, we minister to him: Make us ever ready to respond to the needs of others, that, inspired by the ministry of Wilfred Grenfell to the sick and to seafarers in Labrador and northern Newfoundland, our actions may witness to the love of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Psalm 107:23-32

Lessons:  2 Kings 2:19–22, 1 Corinthians 12:1–11, and Mark 6:45–56

Preface of a Saint (I)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

Also of interest

The International Grenfell Society


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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7 thoughts on “October 9: Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, Medical Missionary, 1940

  1. Hebrew reading: ‘wholesome water’ from 2 Kings seems a real stretch. Granted, Newfoundland and Labrador have lots of water but does the reading really fit?.
    NT reading: ‘gifts of the Spirit’ Why does this reading fit for Grenfell?

    Bio. He needs a ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement. Identifying Cheshire, England, is a good addition because there are many Cheshires in the USA. This convention should be followed in other bios in HWHM.
    1st paragraph: The last sentence seems awkward. Who was skilled in boxing et. al. made famous by Charles Kingsley? Grenfell or Moody?

  2. ‘Muscular Christianity’ was a pejorative term, and Kingsley preferred to call it ‘Christian manliness’, a quality he saw and extolled in such Old Testament heroes as Gideon and David. Whatever the name, it’s a movement so little known today (unfortunately, IMHO) that the bio might do better to refer to the Christian Socialism with which it seems to have been frequently joined, and in which Grenfell also seems to have been influenced by Kingsley.

  3. I love this commemoration. I have no idea what religious tradition he represents (unless “Seaman’s Institute” implies Anglican), but his compassionate engagement with improving the circumstances of fishermen and others resonates strongly for me.
    The paragraph before last threw me, since I didn’t realize in Grenfell’s time Canada did not yet include Newfoundland (“…with branches in Newfoundland, the United States, and Canada.…”) Could Newfoundland be identified as a colony of Britain, or in some inconspicuous way that carries the point that “Newfoundland … and Canada” isn’t a redundancy? (It joined Canada as a province only in 1949.)
    In the paragraph beginning, “In 1887…” the end of its last sentence (“due to his modest and simple style,”) left me wondering if that referred to his writing style (since the sentence is about his book audience) or, since it specifies “those with whom he worked,” i.e., specifically people who would know him personally, if the phrase about his “style” meant his personal demeanor (as opposed to acting haughty, superior, etc.)
    The collect specifies his ministry was “to the sick and to seafarers in Labrador and northern Newfoundland.” From the bio it is clear that his ministry extended well beyond these. Specificity is good, but this seems to foreshorten what he did. That seems unfortunate here.
    I’m beginning to react to frequent use (by me, as much as anyone,) of the admittedly biblical and significant teaching about “the least” – as for example in the second line of either collect today. Identifying people as “the least” can take on a subtle “Lady Bountiful” nuance of looking down from a superior and distancing position: “WE good Christians should help THOSE little people.” Naturally, people are not “less” (nor “least”) for having a hard life, doing laborious and dangerous work, or for having a relative dearth of material stuff. Jesus did, indeed, use parables that mentioned “the least” – but I don’t detect incipient “us-them” imputations in his use of the term. Sometimes it meant the youngest, the smallest, the one with least status, but always in a homogeneous group, with as much a sense of connection as if he said “those among us who deserve our support but whom we often and shamefully overlook” – not “least” as judged from a presumed superior stance, benign though its intention may be. I’m not objecting to its use in the collects here, either; just raising a yellow flag on being too comfortable about its frequent or free use. (Its use here is defensible, I suppose, especially with “brothers and sisters” included; nevertheless, I want to register my pang of discomfort, anyway.)

  4. This bio has been adapted from one readily available online. I suggest it needs some further work. to meet our standards.

    He wasn’t knighted until 1927, so the first word should be eliminated. (See below for the appropriate place to recognize his KCMG (Knight Commander of Saint Michael and Saint George) –not that Grenfell’s appointment to that order needs to be spelled out here, where the niceties of the Order of St. Michael & St. George are of little interest. (FYI, it is used by the British sovereign to honor individuals who have rendered important services in relation to Commonwealth or foreign nations.)

    In line 4 of the first paragraph, it would be better to show his mother’s name as “Jane Georgina (Hutchinson) Grenfell”.

    In line 5 of the first paragraph, insert “the” after “of” to avoid the journalese shorthand.

    In line 7 of the first paragraph, substitute “Grenfell” for “he”–the last person named is Moody!

    In line 1 of the second paragraph, avoid the vague “following his medical qualification” by substituting “as a qualified doctor”.

    In line 4 of the second paragraph, I recommend inserting “Dr.” before “Grenfell” as a matter of courtesy: this is not a newspaper article!

    In line 11, to avoid repeating the word “books”, substitute “writings”.

    In line 4 of the third paragraph, add a new sentence “He was knighted for his work in 1927”, and as a related change begin the fourth paragraph with the words “Sir Wilfred”.

  5. The phrase “muscular Christianity” raises images of British Empire and Elmer Gentry for me. I realize, that in the 19th century, team sports requiring male strength were thought to build moral character. And one still finds, at least where I live, young men of high school and college age who pray before football games as a relic of this ideal. But the recent scandal involving undergraduate University of North Carolina football prayers and coaches, reminds us all once again that team sports have been corrupted by money, greed and power. Team sports have no intrinsic capacity to build moral character. Often linked with the ideal of moral toughness is physical ability to ignore pain and “play through it.” Unfortunately this often results in improperly treated injuries that become manifest only many years later.

    I will freely admit that I do not understand the commemoration for Dr. Wilfred Thomason Grenfell. For me the whole praise of Dr. Grenfell for his support for “muscular Christianity” is inappropriate. The fact that Dr. Grenfell was accomplished in many sports says nothing about his Christian discipleship. Perhaps if more were written about his life and work in Labrador and Newfoundland, it would be most helpful. Was Dr. Grenfell an “extraordinary, even heroic servant of God and God’s people, for the sake, and after the example, of Jesus Christ” as is written in the guidelines for commemoration? His life was apparently an example of practical Christianity, and maybe that should be the point of the commemoration.

  6. I’m curious – in what community within TEC is Grenfell remembered? It sounds like he was a good man, but I’m not hearing why he (of innumerable good people) has been chosen for inclusion here. Perhaps the community that honors him could add to his bio? Or were we looking for a saint who specialized in fishermen?
    I’m also curious about the Grenfell Association, which is mentioned as if we’d recognize the title (which I don’t). Unfortunately, the one-sentence mention makes it sound like organized Grenfell groupies. If the Association simply gave support to him personally, I don’t see a need to mention it. If it was/is more than that, I’d like to see it spelled out.

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